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Speaking Nicely

Speaking Nicely

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One cloudy day towards the end of our holiday in South Africa, my husband and I took the children to the famous Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Situated between Robben Island and Table Mountain, this former harbor area has been transformed into a massive complex of shopping malls, a craft market named The Red Shed, and other innumerable attractions.

We wandered through the stalls in The Red Shed looking for the perfect parting gift to give my in-laws. Then my husband saw it: a photography stall run by a jaunty Boer lady. We could take a picture of the children and make it into a keyring, a placemat or even a calendar. The photographer, with a wide smile, introduced herself as Anne. She sat all the children down on a low wooden bench. Five failed photographs later, her smile narrowed a little, but her patience still held strong.

Five failed photographs later, her smile narrowed a little, but her patience still held strong“I have just the thing to keep them still,” I said, and pulled out a supply of toffees from my bag. The next photo was the worst of all. All the children had puffy cheeks and contorted jaws from trying to simultaneously smile and chew a toffee; the baby’s face looked squashed from my eldest daughter’s attempts to keep her positioned.

“Maybe you’d like to do a calendar instead of a placemat,” Anne said brightly. “You could put a photo of a different child on each month.”

My husband shook his head; it was beyond our budget. I shook my head; we didn’t have twelve children.

By now all the children had lost their patience. One of the bigger girls whispered to her younger sister, whose eyes filled with tears. The offended child edged towards me and whispered, “She said that the photo isn’t turning out because I’m so ugly.”

I glared at the offender and said the words that countless Jewish mothers have been saying for countless of years as they teach their children the power of words: “What you said is loshon hora, negative speech. You hurt your sister’s feelings. You mustn’t do that. Say sorry and try to use nice words only.” I wiped away a few tears off my younger daughter’s little face. Somehow we got a beautiful shot and had it laminated to make a placemat.

I remembered the toffees, thought of bottomless cavities and wondered what was coming nextOne day when we were back in Israel, my mother-in-law called. After getting an update on the children, she said, “Yesterday I went into The Red Shed and looked for the photography stall. I asked the owner, Anne, if she remembered a family with lots of children coming in and she said ‘yes’ immediately,” my mother-in-law paused.

I remembered the toffees, thought of bottomless cavities and wondered what was coming next.

“Well, she told me she was very impressed to see how you are teaching the children to speak nicely.”

That day at the Waterfront, Anne got more than just a snapshot. She caught a glimmer of the holiness and sanctity that surrounds the power of words. When G‑d took the dust of the earth, molded man and breathed into him a G‑dly soul, He created a being who combines the physical and the spiritual. The commentator Onkelos tells us that a nefesh chayah, a living spirit, is synonymous with a speaking spirit, and that it is therefore the power of speech that defines us as human beings. By choosing to use our speech positively, we express the spiritual side of ourselves and make ourselves more G‑dly.

Rhona Lewis was born and grew up in Kenya. She moved to Israel in 1991 and now lives in Beit Shemesh, where she divides her time between caring for her large, happy family and writing. She is currently working on a book of her memoirs.
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